The World Today for February 08, 2019

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NEED TO KNOW

VENEZUELA

A Tipping Point?

How long can it go on this way in Venezuela?

The economy contracted by 18 percent last year and by a third between 2013 and 2017, according to Al Jazeera. Inflation could hit 10 million percent – that’s not a typo – this summer. Three million people have left the country since 2015.

“The public health system is in ruins,” wrote Al Jazeera. “Life-saving medicines, electricity and clean water are in short supply. Food is scarce. Malnutrition is widespread.”

Now a full-fledged political crisis has struck the country.

Last month, as NPR explained, National Assembly leader Juan Guaidó declared that he was interim president under Venezuelan law. He was probably right, argued Lawfare, a blog published in cooperation with the Brookings Institution.

Still, the move was undoubtedly a political challenge to President Nicolás Maduro.

Guaidó made his move after around one million Venezuelans took to the streets following his call for demonstrations against Maduro’s rule. He wanted to make sure the people backed him. Further putting pressure on Maduro, the US, Argentina, Brazil, Canada and other countries also recognized Guaidó.

Maduro is a follower of Hugo Chavez, the socialist leader who improved the country’s social welfare system but left it exceedingly vulnerable to low oil prices, setting the stage for the country’s troubles today. But Chavez and Maduro also solidified their cabal’s control over the government. Maduro is not inclined to leave.

Guaidó has acknowledged that he needs one more constituency to oust Maduro: the military. He’s offered commanders and their troops amnesty for crimes they have committed under the incumbent president if they turn on their leader.

“The military’s withdrawal of support from Mr. Maduro is crucial to enabling a change in government, and the majority of those in service agree that the country’s recent travails are untenable,” he wrote in an extraordinary op-ed in the New York Times.

The military has yet to act, though rank-and-file soldiers have been deserting in droves since before Guaido’s plea, Bloomberg noted.

The US is ramping up the pressure. Citgo, one of the largest petroleum refiners in the US, is owned by Venezuela’s state oil company. With facilities in Texas, Louisiana and Illinois, it has provided Maduro with foreign cash and chemicals needed to process Venezuelan oil. But US sanctions require the US-based company to put its profits into a US bank that Maduro can’t access, the Washington Post reported.

Abraham Lowenthal, founding director of the nonpartisan Wilson Center’s Latin American Program, noted that the US can’t change Venezuela single-handedly. In an NBC News opinion piece, he said the US and other nations could facilitate change by promising aid if and when Maduro goes.

Lowenthal’s suggestion is one of many floating around. The point is, plan for change.

WANT TO KNOW

FRANCE

Most Putrified Core

France recalled its ambassador from Italy, some say highlighting the rot at the core of the European Union resulting from the rise of populist leaders in Rome and elsewhere across the bloc.

“This is without precedent since 1940, when Mussolini declared war,” said Marc Lazar, a specialist in Franco-Italian relations who teaches at universities in Paris and Rome, according to the New York Times.

Italy’s far-right interior minister, Matteo Salvini, has been baiting French President Emmanuel Macron for some time, while the champion of a united Europe has called the type of populism Salvini represents a kind of “leprosy.”

On Tuesday, however, Italy went a step too far for Macron to accept, as Deputy Prime Minister Luigi Di Maio, the political leader of the populist Five Star Movement, met in France with a leader of the Yellow Vest protesters who threaten to derail Macron’s economic reforms.

To a degree, at least, Macron may have brought the problem on himself with his high-flown rhetoric, Lazar told the Times. While the president has offered “grand speeches,” Paris has been no more welcoming of migrants than Rome.

UKRAINE

Doubling Down

Ukraine’s parliament passed a constitutional amendment committing the country to efforts to join NATO and the European Union – aspirations that prompted Kiev’s present troubles with Moscow.

The amendment passed 334-17 on Wednesday, according to Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty.

President Petro Poroshenko hailed the “historic day” and said the amendment will strengthen his government’s resolve to carry out economic reforms, the Associated Press reported.

In 2013, Ukrainians took to the streets in huge numbers to protest the former president’s refusal to sign an association agreement with the EU. Then-President Viktor Yanukovych soon fled to Moscow, a new government was elected, and not long after that Russia annexed Crimea. Poroshenko signed the association agreement the same year, and it came into force in 2017.

Ironically, Russia’s annexation of Crimea only served to make the prospect of joining NATO more attractive to ordinary Ukrainians. But NATO members may be reluctant to welcome the country as a new member and heighten the risk of direct conflict with Russia.

TUNISIA

Buying Peace

Tunisia averted a nationwide strike by its largest trade union by agreeing to increase the wages earned by 670,000 state employees.

The total increase wasn’t announced, but Agence France-Presse reported that civil servants would get raises of up to $55 a month.

“The government has bought social peace,” said Minister of Economic Reform Taoufik Rajhi, according to Reuters. But the decision could put Tunisia at odds with the International Monetary Fund and other foreign lenders, who have been pushing the country to slash spending and reduce its large budget deficit.

Already, teachers have been boycotting student exams and last month a strike paralyzed rail, bus and air traffic, the agency said. Yet that kind of political turmoil is partly responsible for deterring investment – and the jobs it brings – forcing the country to agree to austerity measures and seek around $2.8 billion from the IMF.

One key to that austerity plan, as the IMF sees it, was freezing public sector wages.

DISCOVERIES

Slithering Season

It’s a busy season for Australian snake catcher Luke Huntley, who has been removing a lot of slithering reptiles from homes, including a seven-foot python that was trying to hydrate in a shower recently.

“With the hot days and dry weather, these snakes are trying to hydrate and stay cool just like us,” he wrote on his Facebook page.

While the US deals with a massive cold snap, a record-setting heat wave in Australia is drying up landscapes, causing wildfires, overloading the power grid and forcing the country’s 140 snake species to seek shelter – sometimes in the kitchens and bathrooms of unsuspecting homeowners, the Washington Post reported.

Australia’s climate has warmed by 2 degrees Fahrenheit since 1910, increasing the number of heat waves and droughts, according to the country’s Bureau of Meteorology.

Snakes generally emerge from September through February, Australia’s spring and summer months.

Most of them are very hungry as the weather gets warmer, but there’s no reason to be concerned, according to University of Melbourne researcher Timothy Jackson.

“It’s important to understand that this isn’t because snakes are out to get us,” he said in September. “The last thing a snake wants to see when it’s out looking for a feed is a giant primate, dog or cat.”

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